Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Neverending Campaign and the Problem of Verisimilitude

What I always feel reticent about in a story game like In a Wicked Age or Blood & Honor or Fiasco or whatever is that I encounter a verisimilitude problem during the game. It's all very well to cede narrative control to different players, and it often results in interesting and enjoyable consequences, but I find it hard to engage with the world as a believable place if everything is contingent and can change at a moment's notice once control of what's happening shifts from one player to another. (Of course, you get a bit of this in any RPG, but it isn't the whole point of the game as it is in, say, Fiasco.)

For example, let's say it has been established that there is a town with a mayor. Okay. Then one of the players decides that the mayor is secretly an alien. Then once that's been established, one of the other players decides that the mayor is a secretly an alien and his wife is an alien hunter who does not know that her husband is an alien. That's the sort of dramatic consequence that you get in certain story games, and I like it, but it only really makes sense as the creation of a narrative, not an exploration of an actual real world. This makes it hard for me to take things seriously, as though they are not actually really happening but are just contingent, notional events subject to radical change at a moment's notice.

What's a way around that problem? Well, I am currently reading The Neverending Story. I read it once a very long time ago, I reckon when I was about 10 or 11, so I can remember very little about it (except the really vivid scene in which a band of flagellants throw themselves into the Nothing, which has always stuck in my mind). I'd always thought of it as being a kind of European version of The Lord of the Rings, but of course it isn't that at all. It's more of a kind of trippy extended metaphor for the imagination, and it's pretty brilliant stuff. (And nothing like the film, although I don't remember much about that either.)

As those of you familiar with the story will know, in the second half of the book Fantastica sort of creates itself out of the wishes of Bastian - it isn't fixed in place at all. Once Bastian has imagined something, it comes into effect and is completely real, but not until then. This gives him a level of control over things, although the world has a strange way of not quite conforming to what he really wants it to be and in a sense perverting it.

I like this - it's a very potent allegory for the human imagination - and I think it's a little bit like the way in which a story game works. You have a world that is slowly created by the players, each of whom has the power to give effect to his or her wishes. But those wishes get perverted and changed by the other players, or the GM, who also act on the world in unexpected ways. Like Bastian, each player has the power to actually affect the world purely through his or her imagination, but, also like Bastian, the world still has the capacity to be completely surprising.

I like this way of thinking about story games and it makes much more sense to me not to think of them as story games, but Neverending Story Games (if you will). In other words, people who make story games have inadvertently made the perfect tool for replicating the fictional world of The Neverending Story and settings like it. Forget all that hippy bollocks about shared narrative and protagonisation and whatnot. No, let's use story games for role playing in worlds in which the PCs, not the players, actually literally have the capacity to affect things with their wishes. Boris the 1st level fighter can actually create a dragon's treasure hoard by wishing it into existence, and Sarah the 2nd level mage can actually wish for the dragon to be absent. It's not Boris and Sarah's players who are doing it, but the actual characters within the fiction. Of course, the GM then gets the chance to say, yes, there may be a dragon's hoard, and the dragon may be absent, but he always leaves his treasure hoard coated with deadly poison when he goes away. (Even better: the PCs make wishes about the world. The GM makes tweaks in response but does not say them out loud - he just writes them on a concealed piece of card that he reveals at an appropriate moment: "Haha, the dragon's hoard is poisoned, fuckers!")

This seems the perfect approach for a campaign - or maybe an interlude in a campaign - which is set in a dream land or a place in which dream logic operates. The players get sucked into Limbo or Pandemonium or the Abyss. There, whatever they imagine gets made real... But the evil nature of the environment cannot easily be escaped...

Monday, 8 February 2016

On Quality, Whisky, Time, and Being a Connoisseur

Have a look at these videos:

This is somebody who cares deeply about whisky and wants it, more than anything else, to be good. Somebody who appreciates quality and does not care about being labelled as snobbish or elitist as a result - because life is glorious and important and must be made the most of. I like this. I like listening to somebody talk in a passionate and informed way about a topic. I happen to like whisky, but I think I would enjoy listening to these videos even if it was about a topic I knew nothing about - like, I dunno, dressage.

One of the big victories of the move towards DIY D&D is that it allows people to be connoisseurs of games. I don't mean that in a poncey or precious way. I simply mean that there is so much stuff being produced, written, and tried, and so much experience to draw from, that it is possible to discuss and think about games carefully and in detail in a way that was never possible before. To put it in a slightly poncey or precious way - it is now possible to savour them.

There is nothing wrong with savouring things. As Ralfy says at some point, there's a lot of pressure in life not to think. There are too many distractions and stresses and other things to do. But stopping to think about what you are doing, have done, and would like to do, is of crucial importance in really properly enjoying life. If you don't stop to think things over, you're living life like a fly - darting from one thing to another, pursuing sensations and experiences for the sake of them, and probably being almost as satisfied scoffing dog turd as a fine pate as a result. That's no good at all, and certainly not what we humans are here for. So here's to having a good wee dram of whisky, rum, armagnac or whatever's your poison, and thinking carefully and slowly about gaming materials that have been, gaming materials that you are creating, and games that have been played or are yet to be.

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Imagination is a Muscle

In a recent episode of Geek's Guide (which I thought was largely nonsense, but entertaining enough), the interviewee observed that the imagination is something that has to be exercised - imagining things is something you can get better at.

I agree with this. It got me thinking: if you have to exercise your imagination - if it's a muscle as much as your triceps or glutes - then why not do more formal imagination training? Here are my patented daily routines for becoming a better imaginer.

Imagination Maintenance

This is for use during busy periods, illness, or for beginner imaginers to get into the habit. Roll up as many D&D PCs as you can in five minutes (using 3d6 for stats, in order). Just do the dice rolls. Then spend 10 minutes coming up with a name, personality, class, and distinguishing feature for each one. Do six sets, with five minutes rest in between. Increase the number of sets as your speed and fitness improve. Allow yourself one day of rest a week.

Imagination Circuit Training

The key to proper circuit training is rotating through between 4 and 8 different exercises without resting in between. A standard routine might run as follows, with each 10 minutes for each set, repeated three times.

  1. Imagine a new monster. Give it stats.
  2. Imagine a new NPC wizard. Equip him with treasure and two assistants.
  3. Draw the top level of a dungeon.
  4. Pick four monsters at random from a bestiary of your choice and give them each a replacement ability for an existing one. 
  5. Invent a new magic item.
  6. Invent a new spell.

A more advanced routine could be as follows, allowing 15 minutes for each set and three repetitions, advancing to five as fitness increases.

  1. Pick four monsters at random from a bestiary of your choice. Invent a society comprising those four monsters.
  2. Create a mini-hex map of six hexes.
  3. Create a random encounter table for a type of terrain.
  4. Create a d30 table for a means of randomly determining something of your choice.
  5. Think of a new PC race or class.

High Intensity Interval Imagination Training (HIIIT)

Alternate 40 seconds of high intensity imagining with 15-20 seconds of low intensity imagining and continue for as long as desired (not longer than 30 minutes and not less than 4 minutes). High intensity imagining consists of thinking of something entirely new (e.g. a new monster, map, NPC, etc.) Low intensity imagining involves tweaking something which already exists (e.g. altering a spell, class or monster). This is not advised for amateur imaginers or beginners, as it might lead to brain strain or more serious injuries. 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Clerics as Summoners of Angels

One of the main characteristics of There is Therefore a Strange Land is that it is set in a sort of pseudo-real world. If you are a cleric, you worship God. (Rules for Satan worshippers can wait for another day.) This means that you can't use magic, which would be blasphemous. That's something you need an angel for.

The angel will demand one of the following actions is performed in return for  a period of service of 3d6 days. During the period of service the angel obeys any command, except to kill itself.

Perform an unasked-for act of compassion during the course of the period of service
Give away at least 10% of personal wealth during the course of the period of service
Take a vow of silence for the duration of the period of service
Abstain from eating or drinking during daylight hours for the duration of the period of service (-2 to all rolls during daylight)
Smite an evildoer for no personal gain during the course of the period of service
Ask for forgiveness from somebody previously wronged at the end of the period of service (determined by the DM)

In addition, during the course of the period of service, the cleric may not disobey any of the Ten Commandments or order the angel to. If he or she does so, the angel will rebel and must be persuaded its continued service is for the Greater Good. The cleric's PC must come up with a plausible reason, and then roll on the following table, adding the reaction adjustment for the cleric.

Angel rebels and attacks
Angel returns to heaven
Angel is indecisive (roll again in one round)
Angel remains in service but makes another demand
Angel remains in service

A summoned angel has the following abilities, based on the level of the cleric.

1st level
1 HD, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG By Weapon +1, 1st level cleric spell list (1d3 per day)
2nd level
2 HD, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG By Weapon +2, 1st level cleric spell list (1d6 per day)
3rd level
3 HD, AC 5, #ATT 1, DMG By Weapon +3, 1st level cleric spell list (1d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (1d3 per day, randomly determined)
4th level
4 HD, AC 5, ATT 2, DMG By Weapon +2, 1st level cleric spell list (1d6+3 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (1d6 per day, randomly determined)
5th level
5 HD, AC 4, #ATT 2, DMG By Weapon +2, 1st level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (1d6+3 per day), 3rd level cleric spell list (1d3 per day)
6th level
6 HD, AC 4, #ATT 2, DMG By Weapon +3, 1st level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (1d6+3 per day), 3rd level cleric spell list (1d6 per day)
7th level
7 HD, AC 3, #ATT 2, DMG By Weapon +3, 1st level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 3rd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day)
8th level
8 HD, AC 3, #ATT 2, DMG By Weapon +4, 1st level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 3rd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 4th level cleric spell list (1d3 per day)
9th level+
9 HD, AC 2, #ATT 3, DMG By Weapon +2, 1st level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 3rd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 4th level cleric spell list (1d6 per day)
*Angels can also levitate, see invisible, and polymorph self to pass for a normal human, all once per day at 1st level, three times per day at 4th level, and at will at 9th level+.

Angels have the following characteristics.

Appearance 1
Appearance 2
Young boy
Shimmering and radiant
Young girl
Almost preternaturally nondescript
Adolescent boy
Very thin and delicate
Adolescent girl
Very small
Adult male
Very tall
Adult female
Blue skinned
Short bow
Old man
Green skinned
Old woman
Very ugly
Eagle headed
Fat and well-fed
Lion headed
Battle axe
Dog headed
Two-handed sword
Very long-haired

[Main thoughts: could be overpowered. Also, the characteristics table needs to be a d20 or d30 one.]

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Hatred of Heat

If you lived deep inside a glacier, far from the light of day and the warmth of the sun, you would hate heat. Its very existence would threaten your home, your habitat, your environment, your belongings, the resources on which you rely. Even the tiny flame of a torch, which could have no effect on the ancient ice down there, would symbolise the power which warmth has over cold. You would want it extinguished, stamped out. You would see its invasion into your home as an affront. And you would want to eject or kill any warm-blooded intruders from the surface who might bring the threat of heat into your frozen world.

This is the mentality of intelligent beings in the depths of a glacier dungeon.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

A Big List of Forthcoming Projects

People on G+ (well, one person anyway) has been asking for an update on what I'm currently working on. Well, I'm very much like Jesus, in the sense that I operate on the basis of ASK, AND YE SHALL RECEIVE. So, here goes, in the order in which they are likely to be released.

1. The Peridot

This is my semi-regular zine. It includes adventure locations and maps, NPCs, monsters, spells and magic items for use in games, as well as an entire unique mini-setting in each issue. Some of its contents are Yoon-Suin related; most are not. It contains the occasional piece of fiction. It typically has more than 50, and less than 100, pages of content.

2. There is Therefore a Strange Land

This is a campaign setting, which was originally planned as a kind of OSR update of Planescape, but with the Regency elements to the fore. It was billed as The Magician's Nephew meets William Blake. It has evolved somewhat since then, and I have recently been giving it considerable thought. My idea now is that There is Therefore a Strange Land is a kind of Ur-Setting. The PCs begin in a miscellaneous European city. They might be dilettantes, scholars, satanists, priests, or alchemists. One of them inherits the study of a dead uncle or aunt who was clearly Up To Something. In this study is a portal, or portals, which lead to another World or Worlds - and these can be anything the DM desires (the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, the Abyss, Yoon-Suin, Vornheim, the Warhammer world - or absolutely anything else). There is Therefore a Strange Land is thus a collection of tools for creating the study, the city, the PCs, the other investigating powers in the city, and so forth - the idea being that the existence of the other Worlds is also known by others, who will want to buy whatever the PCs can bring back, kill them as rivals, and so on. Moreover, since it is assumed that the PCs may become rich and powerful as a result of their explorations, there are also mechanisms for establishing power structures within the city with which they can interact. Picture a group of scholars from Regency-era London going to Athas and bringing back a cannibal halfling to sell to the Prince of Brunswick, all the while trying to avoid being noticed by their rivals, thieves, or high society, and you'll have in mind the kind of game that There is Therefore a Strange Land is all about.

3. New Troy

This is a setting loosely based on combing the Matter of Britain with Norse legend, and is a kind of tribute to Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy. The setting is New Troy - drawing from the old English legend that the British Isles were settled by refugees from the fall of Troy. There is a hex-map made up of 1-mile hexes, but slippage can take place into the lands of Faerie and Muspelheim. Faerie is a place where time moves much more slowly than it does in New Troy, and is the home of mystical beings and faerie shees. I call it the "Mythic Otherworld". Muspelheim is a place where time moves more quickly, and is constantly divided between the rule of frost giants and fire giants. There are also all manner of Norse and Norse-influenced evil spirits down there. It is a traditional mega-dungeon. The trick is that Faerie, New Troy, and Muspelheim all mirror each other, a bit like 3D chess: they possess the same or similar geographies, and it is possible for events in one world to influence the others. So, for instance, the castle of Kinkernadon finds a replica in Faerie in exactly the same location - Tripsey Shee - and ditto in Muspelheim. If the Lord of Kinkernadon is assassinated, the faerie prince in Tripsey Shee may also come to a sticky end. And so on. This means that the PCs can attempt to attack enemies, conduct heists, and so forth, from world to world.

4. Moons of Jupiter Planetcrawl

I've written enough about this recently: see here.

5. Fixed World [Proper title TBC]

Ditto: see here.

6. A sub-folder I have in my RPG folder on my Desktop entitled Emishi Ezo Ainu Nara Period Setting.

This is an evolution of my old 'Queen Country' idea, which I had been toying with anyway, but which I might now decide to set in an ancient iteration of Kara-Tur's 'Wa'. The PCs take on the role of officials in the budding Japanese Empire, which is spreading its tendrils into the cold North. Here there are strange hairy people called the Emishi, who worship bears, and all manner of supernatural beings, sorceresses, witches, evil spirits, and God knows what else. The PCs get XP for exploration and discovery. 

Saturday, 30 January 2016

On the DM's Guild; or, Let's be Innovative with the Forgotten Realms

I was never a fan of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. That isn't to say I hated it - I never really read a word of it. I was simply vaguely aware of its existence as a teenager, mainly because of the Drizzt novels that festooned the shelves of the F&SF sections of local bookstores. I don't apologise for sounding snobbish: it just seemed far too much like a substandard, or bog standard, Middle Earth. Why play in Forgotten Realms if you can play MERP? Why have cotton, when you can have silk?

So I know next to nothing about it. Something about Faerun, something about the Underdark, something about Kara-Tur, something about Waterdeep. I did play Baldur's Gate for a bit, which I believe may have been set there, but I didn't play it for long and it only confirmed my suspicions that what was going on wasn't particularly interesting. The exception to this is Al-Qadim, which I enjoyed, but which I honestly never had any idea was even the same world.

That doesn't put me in a fantastic position as regards this new DMs' Guild business. (In case you're not aware what this is: it's either a unique opportunity to self-publish RPG material set in the Forgotten Realms via OBS for real money, or an attempt by WotC to co-opt all the DIY D&D stuff going on, depending on how charitable you're being. Either way, I think we can agree that it surely ought to be entitled the Dungeon Masters' Guild.) But I am nonetheless curious. It strikes me as interesting to experiment with, at least: to reach a new audience, make some cash, and also perhaps even subvert things a little bit.

How to get around the fact that the Forgotten Realms, judging by its extensive wikipedia entries, is both really bland and rather restrictive?

The answer is simple: time travel. WotC haven't stipulated anything about the distant future or distant past. So let me offer some sample DMs' Guild submissions:

1) Fantasy world Japanese people in the fantasy world Nara period explore fantasy world Ainu Moshir. The adventurers are officials from Wa in the ancient past, when the frosty north has yet to be settled or explored. There are strange people up there who worship bears, not to mention, natch, glacier dungeons and symbiants. Civilized PCs explore a wild and dangerous miniature New World.

2) Fantasy Aztecs in the future. So there's a fantasy Mexico in the Forgotten Realms, it seems - full of scorpion men, jaguar men, Yuan-ti, and the rest. It's called Maztica. Fast forward 2,000 years. Now all the scorpion men, jaguar men, Yuan-ti and the rest are putting cybernetic implants in their bodies, riding around in driver-less cars, smoking e-cigarettes, and getting tattoos. The PCs are private investigators solving murders: there is a separate police force and legal system for each of the different race, and the PCs have to work in a fashion hidden from the authorities.

3) Fantasy aboriginal people in survival horror world. It's a million years ago. The Stone Age of some region of Faerun which resembles Australia. The PCs are warriors or shamans with clubs, magical tattoos, and the limited power to travel in the Dream World (the Abyss). But there are things living in the Dream World (i.e. devils and demons) who can enter theirs. Cue the PCs exploring a hostile, barren outback where there are amnizus, cornugons, glabrezus, and mariliths, trying the best they can to defend their people and, even, prosper.

4) Dying Faerun. It's a 5 billion years in the future. Faerun's sun is fading. Only one city remains on the surface. Its defiant inhabitants explore the Underdark in an attempt to survive...

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Random Moon of Jupiter Generator and Three Random Moons

It's more interesting to come up with details for each of the Moons of Jupiter. But I couldn't resist creating a d20 table to spur the imagination. Here it is.

Let's create some moons.

Moon 1: Terrain - living growth. This moon is a forest of toadstools, mushrooms, and other fungi. It has one main antagonist type: an evil intelligence. A roll of 3 indicates beholders. Excellent: a fungus forest in which lurks a beholder hive mother and her many drones. They enslave anybody unfortunate enough to land, and are busy constructing a magical portal by which they can invade other worlds.

Moon 2: Terrain - Icy. A glacial ball hovering in the void. Main antagonist types are fomorians and a lammasu. There is a special condition of 'unstable'. Clearly, the lammasu was placed on this moon to protect an ancient artefact, temple, shrine, monument or captive. The fomorians dwell in caverns in the ice, perhaps plotting its conquest - or a way to get off this icy sphere and to somewhere where they can satisfy their cruel lusts.

Moon 3: Terrain - Icy. Another glacier world. Main antagonist type is salamanders. Curioser and curioser. The salamanders are clearly exiles from the elemental plane of fire. Having committed some obscure crime, they have been sentenced to punishment by their efreeti overlords to live in suffering for 1,001 years in severe and unrelenting cold. They are desperate to escape, or - even better - return their home plane to wreak horrible vengeance on their betrayers.

I love D&D.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Moons of Jupiter Ring Map

Let's think some more about D&D Moons of Jupiter. Let's also establish none of this is based in physics or actual astronomical reality. We're dealing in broad brush strokes.

This is what I am christening a Ring Map. I've arranged the moons of Jupiter into sections of rings. (Not actually related much to their real orbits.) The way it works is as follows.

Every d6 days the innermost ring rotates one section clockwise. (The irregularity is to do with fluidity of the phlogiston, direction of Jovian Winds, etc.) Every 2d6 days, the second ring rotates one section clockwise. Every 3d6 days, the third ring rotates... And so forth. This is not difficult to keep track of - you just make the rolls at the start of the campaign for all the rings, keep a tally of days, and reroll for a given ring on the predetermined rotation date.

Ships are limited in how far they can travel. Ordinary ships can move only as far as the next moon over in any direction before needing to resupply (or running out of aether or whatever). Very expensive, fancy ships can move two. Sailing between moons takes d3 days.

So, for example, imagine the PCs are on Euporie. They want to get to Adrastea because on that rock lives a medusa who owns a magical amethyst which can cure lycanthropy or whatever. They can get there by hopping to Leda, then Europa, and then Adrastea. Each time they have to stop to resupply and each journey risks an encounter with pirates, dragons, slaad raiders, floathing aboleths, Jovian krakens, plogiston sorcerors, and so forth.

On the other hand, imagine the PCs are on Europa. They need to get to Carpo, because they've heard their enemy, the spinagon Malakofrex, is building a fortress there. They could hop from Europa to Carpo, which would take a number of 'moves'. Or they could simply wait until Europa's orbit catches up with Carpo's and make the move in one easy step - perhaps taking the time in between to research Malakofrex's weaknesses and prepare.

Needs more work: the moons which are just code numbers need Greek sounding names, and maybe some empty spaces would be good to make travel in some regions riskier. But serves as a sort of proof of concept.

Fantasy Moons of Jupiter Planetcrawl

Imagine Jupiter with its (as of 2012) 66 moons (subject which has come up before). Now imagine a Spelljammer-esque game of D&D set there. Ships sailing from frigid Europa (planet of frost giants, ice mephits and white dragons) to fiery Io (the kingdom of the Efreeti). Stopping off at tiny rocky Thebe to pick up a potion of Stone to Mud from the duergar who mine that lonely, isolated speck of stone. Plotting a raid on the Necromancer who has made the moon Praxidike his home, where he is guarded by spectres and banshees shrieking into the cold infinity of space. Afterwards feasting with the hook horrors of Callisto, communicating with your hosts through a sverfnebiln interpreter who taps out words to them in code with a complicated system of pebbles tied to his fingers. You hear a rumour from them that on the rings of Saturn lives a gold dragon, who has buried all his treasures in a huge hunk of ice. He is practically invincible, but on far away Pluto there is the shattered remnant of a gelugon's palace, said to house a trident of dragon slaying in its deepest oubliette....